An update on tackling cognitive and implicit bias

By Jarvis Parsons
TDCAA President and District Attorney in Brazos County

When TDCAA decided to teach about cognitive and implicit bias from a prosecutor perspective, I have to admit I was a little hesitant. While I knew the topic was important to address and there could be huge benefits to it, a lot of other things went through my mind. Mostly I was worried about the response from people. If I am confessing all of my sins, I wondered how people would react toward me. Would my colleagues look at me the same way? Would I be treated differently? I have had prior experiences where I’d brought up subjects like racial and gender bias, and I was met with defensiveness and denial—even from people whom I considered friends.

            Ironically, it took a little nudging from my partner in (fighting) crime, Bill Wirskye, First Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Collin County, to take on this project. And he was right to prod me: The reaction from the TDCAA membership has been overwhelmingly positive.

            Since January of this year, Bill Wirskye and I have taught on implicit and cognitive bias, either separately or together, in 15 different sessions. Response has been tremendous. Prosecutors from all over the state have approached Bill and me with thoughtful questions about how cognitive and implicit biases affect them in their offices. Teaching on this topic has not only given me a chance to explain in more depth some of the concepts in our presentation, but it has also educated me. Listeners have opened my own eyes to see that there are other subsets of bias that we have yet to unravel as presenters, as an organization, and as a profession. Because of those conversations, for example, we have started talking about biases in physical attractiveness and gender and how those may impact prosecutors’ decision-making. These additions to our presentations were made directly because individuals interested in making a difference in the profession volunteered that these were other areas that may need addressing.

            It is interesting that my passion in speaking about this topic was based in implicit racial bias. However, I noticed that when I started presenting on gender issues in offices and courtrooms, I could tell that the very real experiences of bias had affected the women prosecutors in the audience. I often ask how many women have ever walked in the courtroom and been mistaken for someone other than an attorney, and about half of the women in the room raise their hands—and this is in 2019! We have come a long way, but we still have far to go.

            These issues that we are tackling are not unique to Texas. Since we started this project, I have had the opportunity to present for prosecutor offices elsewhere too—in Washington D.C., Maine, and Idaho. In D.C., I was asked to give this talk to the National District Attorneys Association, and in Maine, prosecutors from seven counties wanted to learn more about implicit bias.[1] Those counties cover 78 percent of the population of Maine! In Boise, Idaho, more than 100 prosecutors, public defenders, city government executives, and judges came to hear Texas prosecutors lead the way in addressing cognitive bias. It has been a joy and an honor to go to these places and share a little bit about our experiences here in the great State of Texas.

            We as prosecutors have a great and awesome responsibility. It is not to only to do justice. It also extends to understanding what the truth is in a particular situation. Sometimes the one thing that stops us from seeing justice done doesn’t lie in the facts of the case. It lies in the way we look at the facts and, most importantly, how we see the people most affected by those facts—our victims and defendants. It is so easy to see injustice around us that many times we forget to check our own hearts and minds. Put more simply, it’s sometimes easier to pick out the speck in someone else’s eye than to remove the log in our own.[2] My hope is that as we progress down this road of understanding our own biases, we can better understand how we see the world and, consequently, become better advocates for our communities. As Carl Jung put it, “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

Endnotes

[1] Maine county offices included in these talks were Cumberland, York, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Penobscot Counties.

[2] Matthew 7:5 (paraphrased a little, but you get the point).